Is Stress Ruining Your Life? If You Don’t Understand How It Operates, You’ll Never Defeat It
Knowing which type of stress is affecting you at any given moment offers you a different type of solution.
There’s a common law of self-development: identifying an issue is a powerful first step. The sooner you’re able to find out what isn’t working, or what is causing suffering, the quicker you can create a path forward. Whether it’s discovering how you’re holding yourself back, uncovering unhealthy coping mechanisms, or noticing how your environment affects your health, identifying the problem is the start of finding a solution.
That leads us to stress. Everyone experiences stress. It seems that, in our fast-paced world, stress is unavoidable and chronic.
There’s an overbearing sense of urgency due to technology having us always switched on. In addition to personal stressors, the majority of Americans report overwhelming levels of stress due to worldwide issues such as the pandemic, supply chain issues, rising costs of living, the fate of the economy, and ongoing global conflict.
Stress is defined as emotional or physical pressure. Knowing which type of stress is affecting you at any given moment offers you a different type of solution. The four types of stress, identified by Dr. Karl Albrecht in his book Stress and the Manager, provide a foundation for identifying the issue. The four types of stress are time stress, anticipatory stress, situational stress, and encounter stress. Let’s explore these in more detail.
The constant ticking of the clock is a huge cause of stress. The weight of the future, the next minute, the next hour, week, month, or year, can create a lot of internal pressure. Time stress is the feeling that there’s not enough time in the day to achieve everything you have to achieve; send all the emails, complete all the projects, run all the errands, finish all items on the to-do list. When applied to your entire life — of not having enough time to achieve meaningful goals, or making the most of the time you have, this enters into the territory of time anxiety.
Although one of the most common causes of stress, time stress is one of the easiest to manage. Unless you have your own time machine or Dr. Who on speed-dial, it’s unlikely you can bend time itself. However, you can address the practical causes of stress. A certain degree of this is cognitive — anxious thoughts or concerns about the repercussions of not getting everything done. But the majority of this stress is eased with better time management tools, structuring, and scheduling.
Ask yourself, how can I set clear boundaries so I’m not taking so much on? Am I organizing my time adequately? Do I need to be clearer with my priorities? What things are absolutely essential, and how can I re-organize in order to make sure they get dealt with first? Consider applying different time management tools.
For most people, though, time management alone isn’t enough. Some digging below the surface is required to see what beliefs or emotions fuel poor time management. For example, people-pleasing, due to low self-worth or guilt mechanisms, might lead to overcommitments. Or perfectionism might make you more likely to strive to get absolutely everything done, when it’s unreasonable to do so.
Anticipatory stress is, as the name implies, stress caused by the anticipation of an upcoming event, or an abstract fear of the future, such as worrying about the economy, or upcoming life changes. In a study from May this year, a team of researchers from North Carolina State University wanted to explore the role of anticipatory stress during elections. They found that, not only do elections spark anticipatory stress, the degree to which people expected to be stressed is related to their level of stress. In other words, people became stressed about stress.
“There are real emotional consequences for things that haven’t even happened yet – and may not happen at all – simply because we expect them to happen,” study author Shevaun Neupert, echoing the words of Mark Twain’s famous quote: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” In this particular study, the authors found that the more prepared people were, the lower their levels of stress.
Part of handling anticipatory stress is returning to the present, whenever possible, through mindfulness and meditation. Whenever the pressure of the future builds up, work to channell it into a more positive light, and know that the vision of the future is a mirage. General relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and visualization, can help with anticipatory stress. If you can identify a tangible event, be prepared, and make sure you do all you can to be ready for it.
There’s a feedback loop with anticipatory stress, too. The more you develop faith that you’ll be able to handle stress, through handling it in the present, the less likely you’ll fear it in the future. Like the paradoxes Eastern philosophy teach, the less you resist stress, the less intense it becomes.
Sometimes, stress isn’t caused by time anxiety or anticipation of the future, but by your current life situation or environment. Situational stress is unavoidable to some degree, which isn’t a bad thing — a certain level of stress is healthy, and needed for optimal performance. But if you’re in a situation that is either chronically stress-inducing, or some type of emergency, it can have a significant impact on your central nervous system, and levels of wellbeing.
Examples of situational stress include a difficult work environment, going through difficulty or conflict in your home life, or supporting a loved one through illness. Even things such as noise, crowds of people, or a lack of proximity to nature, air quality, and light can cause different types of stress in the body.
The first step with situational stress is to ask: is it possible or reasonable to change my environment? If you’re in a situation that is chronically stressful — such as a difficult work environment — it’s worth considering whether to leave the environment completely, or change your relationship with the environment. If this isn’t possible, other ways to handle situational stress include emotional regulation, grounding, communication skills (to reduce conflict), or setting boundaries.
Unless you live in a cave, you’ll encounter other people. And unless you’re a saint, you’ll likely be annoyed by them, from time to time. Encounter stress is linked to interactions with other people, either because the interactions themselves are overwhelming, full of conflict or other interpersonal difficulties, or simply beyond your capacity. This captures the whole spectrum of stress induced by the way you relate with other people, including close friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers.
All of us have a certain amount of capacity, to hold other people’s emotions, listen attentively, or simply have a healthy level of social interaction.
Part of soothing encounter stress is to consider whether you’re in balance, with the time you need alone, and time you need socializing. Consider what relationships cause stress, and what relationships relax you. Are there patterns you can detect?
Knowing your own needs and boundaries is a big step, the next is communicating them. Be discerning in your relationships, and know what behavior or traits aren’t tolerable. Whether introverted or extroverted, all of us need human interaction. But as messy, flawed humans, there’s always the potential of some level of stress when relating, especially in more intimate relationships.
Stress, when viewed as an overbearing, monumental task, becomes something to be feared. But the four types of stress show, under that label, there are many different factors at play. By identifying the nature of your stressors, you can begin to find actionable solutions. Stress management is an ongoing process, and often a dance between inner work, and managing your environment. But with patience, compassion, and knowing what tools to apply at what time, you’ll move towards a less stressful life.